Dmitri Shostakovich, 1906-1975
Prior to Shostakovich, Russian composers demonstrated only an occasional interest in the string quartet. Highlights consist of a handful of works from Tchaikovsky, Borodin and Prokofiev combined. As Russian classical music rose in the late 19th century, often with an agenda of creating a distinctly Russian national voice, the string quartet was typically eschewed as a characteristic relic of Western, Germanic Europe. Even Stravinsky found precious little use for the ensemble to express his musical revolutions. This all changed with Shostakovich. With a natural inclination toward the medium, its contrapuntal challenges, its unique emotional power and its special qualities for personal, private and even secretive communication, Shostakovich found a worthy outlet for expression, producing fifteen string quartets over the course of nearly forty years, all from his maturity as a composer.
At the midpoint of the series is the String Quartet No. 7, written in 1960 as a tribute to his first wife Nina who died in 1954. Like the other quartets on this evening’s program, it is a compact work, lasting a mere thirteen minutes. Like the other quartets, it covers a much broader expanse than its brevity might initially suggest. The work comprises three movements integrated by a cyclic design that has the final movement return to the themes of the first movement, essentially ending where it started. In between lies a musical journey that is unmistakably pure Shostakovich.
The first movement features a lightly tripping theme that falls downward into a three-note motive like a steady knock on the door. Initially frivolous, the theme is joined by a slow, rising three-note counter motive in the lower strings that quickly undercuts any illusion of lightness with an ominous undertone. If Shostakovich has any single characteristic tone it is here: a dark sensibility with a penchant for mockery, irony and what many would call the grotesque. A second theme of equally suspicious buoyancy leads to a brilliantly distorted recapitulation of both themes, the first stripped to a biting pizzicato, the second shifted to an unsettlingly tart harmony. The movement ends with the three-note knock, slow, unperturbed, but a most inconclusive conclusion.
With the second movement, Shostakovich reveals his expressive intent more transparently. A lonely ostinato sets the stage for an icy lament passed among various solo voices in a thin texture clouded by passing wisps of sliding notes, sustained, static notes and, again, the ominous groundswell of heavy lines in the lower registers. This is music of another world whose strange desolation could only be inhabited by ghosts.
The third movement abruptly interrupts before the second movement finishes. It begins like a related inversion of the first movement theme, tripping up instead of down, a potential new found energy to dispel the haunting chill of the previous mood. Quickly, however, the theme becomes the subject of a fugue with such manic force, complexity and calculated chaos that it becomes clear: Shostakovich has traded the frying pan for the fire. In another signature mode of expression, Shostakovich sounds the alarms of panic, terror and rage in a firestorm of counterpoint that recurs again and again throughout his music. Since the Baroque, great composers have used the fugue procedure not merely as an academic device, but as a technique of dramatic intensification where the hypnotic obsession with a single melodic fragment in dense overlapping simultaneity represents something like unavoidable fate.
Shostakovich’s exit strategy abruptly juxtaposes the frightening rage of his fugue with the sudden reappearance of first movement’s main theme. Gone is the original impression of frivolity. Instead, the husky restatement is full of bitter irony, the three-note knocking now heavy, stinging and unwelcome. The fugue theme transforms into a smooth, slow version of its formal self as a cool refrain swirling between recurrences of the first movement’s materials including the spiky pizzicato, a disembodied dance and the final, slow-motion knock on the door.